What is it?
Banana leaf rice has its origins in the South of India and Sri Lanka, where rice is more commonly consumed than naan or other forms of flatbread.
As the South Indian diaspora spread to regions in Southeast Asia such as Singapore and Malaysia, banana leaf restaurants started to pop up and local variations became ubiquitous.
Traditionally, it is only consumed during special occasions like weddings or Diwali due to the amount of labour that is involved in preparing all the many components. These days restaurants that specialise in it offer it daily, while other establishments choose to serve it only on weekends, such as the popular Roti Bar in Melbourne’s CBD.
It starts off with a mound of fluffy, steamed basmati rice piled on a fresh banana leaf. It is often served with a variety of condiments ranging from sweet and sour pickles, rasam (a tangy, aromatic broth), yoghurt, papadum, daal or curry. These ‘starter’ dishes are most often vegetarian, and you are free to ask for top-ups of whatever you fancy, including the rice. Diners then have the option of adding on extra dishes that are usually on display.
How should I eat it?
I have always found that banana leaf rice is best consumed in the company of friends or family. It means that you can order multiple dishes to share and truly get to sample a variety of what the chef has to offer.
The dishes that are available at banana leaf restaurants are often a strong reflection of both the chef’s personal and culinary background. In Malaysia and Singapore you are just as likely to get a rich and earthy mutton or goat curry, as you are to get a spicy prawn rendang with a hint of tamarind.
Eating with your hands is highly encouraged, and there are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, it is believed that being able to feel the textures of the different foods with your hand adds to the eating experience and makes it more visceral and enjoyable. Secondly, and practically, it allows you to feel and pick out any stray bones. Lastly, using cutlery tends to tear or break the banana leaf, so eating with your hands helps to prevent this.
Where can I find it?
I recently made the trek to Seabrook to check out Suzy’s Kitchen, a newly opened eatery offering the Malaysian/Singaporean rendition of banana leaf rice. The cosy diner, set in a suburban shopping complex, was bustling on a Sunday afternoon. It had only been open for about a month when I visited, but clearly word had already gotten around.
We were greeted warmly by Suzy’s sister-in-law who was behind the till, and she gave us a quick run-down of the day’s offerings. There were some mouth-watering options in the bain-marie display, including fried chicken, prawn rendang, beef rendang, a fish curry and an array of vegetable dishes.
On this occasion, we chose to share the prawn and beef rendangs with our banana leaf rice, and also ordered a serve of roti prata (paratha, chanai) on the side. We definitely over-ordered, but the great thing about curries is that you can always bring home what you can’t finish and have it with some rice for your next meal.
Service was friendly and attentive. Staff came over a few times to ask if we needed anything topped-up. We spoke briefly to owner and head chef, Suzy, and she told us that this was her first foray into running a food establishment. Since moving into the area she has missed being able to find banana leaf rice locally so she decided to take things into her own hands.
Suzy’s Kitchen is a fantastic addition to the Inner-west’s growing number of Malaysian/Singaporean Indian joints offering banana leaf rice. They join Sunshine’s Panjali Indian Malaysian Restaurant, and Newport’s Indi-Kitch in bringing more spice into this Westsider’s life.
Shop 9 73/75 Point Cook Road, Seabrook
Tues-Sat: 12-3pm, 5-9pm
Panjali Indian Malaysian Restaurant
10 Sun Cres, Sunshine
Thurs, Friday: 9:30am-8:45pm
Sat, Sunday: 9am-8:45pm
2/451 Melbourne Road, Newport
Thurs-Sat: 10am-2pm, 5pm-9pm